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Hollywood Sign Land Deal: How About a Different Approach Next Time?

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The story of the Hollywood land deal just won't die down. The Trust had to do damage control on that New Yorker story, while Clear Channel put out a press release today, touting its role saving the land. And amid all this: A Curbed OpEd, from Michael Russell, a local development consultant, who weighs in on the whole deal. Want to submit an essay, rant, or haiku? Send to: la@curbed.com

On the last minute efforts of Hugh Hefner to save the Cahuenga Peak land, as well as the Trust’s and Tom LaBonge’s push to find buyers: Why did it take the threat of home development and the loss of this permanent open space before something was done to maintain this property as permanent open space?

It took a crisis, because this is the way that our city government is set up. The citizens accept this. Unfortunately, it means both those citizens, and the city council are always in a reactive crisis mode on development, be it in dealing with the Hollywood Hills, the Century Plaza Hotel, or any number of proposed, controversial developments that have come along over the last few decades.

I know the Cahuenga Peak land well because in 1997, the Howard Hughes Corporation hired me to head up Howard Hughes Center, and to oversee the Hughes’ heirs forty one percent limited partnership interest in Playa Vista. In my role working for the Howard Hughes Corporation, I was also in charge of entitling and selling the 138-acres around the Hollywood sign on Cahuenga Peak.

In 1997, the Cahuenga Peak property was worth a lot less than $1 million; I can confidently say the land today that I don’t believe the land is worth the $12 million paid by the Trust for Public Land and other partners. It’s also worth noting that Fox Holdings, the seller, didn’t “steal “ the land (as the media reported) from Howard Hughes Corporation/Rouse Company back in 2002. They paid the fair value, $1.6 million.

Back when I was working for the Howard Hughes Trust, the Cahuenga property was zoned residential, with the right to build five homes. Who and what allowed this to happen? Within the framework of the city zoning ordinance of 1946, the planning department envisioned a city of ten million people. Under this zoning code, developers found it easy to manipulate the regulations.

When I discussed my idea for retaining Cahuenga Peak as permanent open space, as well as some of my ideas for Playa Vista, with some of the top City Planning Department staff, all I heard were back was talk about the roadblocks. Staff would tell me about all the rules, procedures and EIRs that we would have to complete. At time, these planners were perhaps just following orders, although I think under the enlightened leadership of Gail Goldberg, Planning Director of the City; I think the staff would have listened with the spirit of cooperation and partnership.

So, the question must be asked: Is there a place within the City government to allow for more creative planning? So far, every battle is defended or fought by the Councilmember and the people in the community. (Look how the press vilified Century Plaza developer Michael Rosendfeld when he wanted to develop the site where the Century Plaza sits--his own property). Is this the most effective way to deal with both development and preservation?

I would recommend that a senior level position be established in the Planning Director’s office. The person would be responsible for anticipating opportunities to make good things happen. They would have to be a multi-talented person that understood planning, zoning, the entitlement process, and real estate, negotiation and deal structure. Most importantly, any creative idea needs a day-to-day champion inside City Hall. Monetary constraints may have impacted the Planning Department, and groups like the Conservancy may be also limited by budgetary issues in terms of the scope of their work, but is there a position for someone who can anticipate, rather than react when it comes to development and preservation?

Michael P. Russell is a development consultant and expert witness, utilizing his experience of being involved in the development of Howard Hughes Center, Playa Vista, Warner Center, Bunker Hill and Irvine Ranch.